Will R.A. Dickey's Angry Knuckleball Change The Game?

Marc Serota

Just when you think you've seen everything, along comes R.A. Dickey, whose 80-mile-an-hour knuckleballs are probably the first in the game's long history.

I have been fairly obsessed with baseball for a long time. For almost as long, I've been crazy about the knuckleball. How many people do you know who own a videotape of a game that featured Tim Wakefield vs. Steve Sparks?

But after a few decades of watching every knuckleball pitcher whenever I could, I thought I had seen it all. I thought there was nothing left to see, except a worthy successor to Tim Wakefield as the game's premier practitioner of the magical art.

That successor did, of course, arrive: Robert Allen Dickey.

What I never guessed was that The Successor would also be a Revolutionary; that after more than a century, the slow dancing knuckleball -- the butterfly, they called it -- could become an utterly different pitch. An utterly devastating pitch.

**************

Everyone's been talking about the numbers. Dickey has thrown consecutive one-hitters. In his last six starts, he's given up two runs, and struck out 63 batters while walking only five. He's the first pitcher in major-league history to make five straight starts without allowing a run and striking out at least eight batters in each start. Et cetera.

I love numbers, but in this case the numbers are less interesting than the physical creation of those numbers.

Here is Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen, one of the very best in the business, during a recent game:

The numbers are just phenomenal, they're off the charts at this point ... But I think what also needs to be said is that R.A. Dickey is redefining what it means to be a knuckleball pitcher, both in terms of his control, but maybe also -- and we don't talk about this enough -- in terms of the velocity of his knuckleball. Nobody's ever thrown a knuckleball like this before.

Keith Hernandez, who faced a number of knuckleball pitchers during his career, agreed: "Well, no one's thrown the knuckleball as hard as he does."

Is that true, though? And I ask that with great respect, because Hernandez is a real student of the game's history. I just figure we should make sure.

Of course, for many years the best knuckleballer was Tim Wakefield. Wakefield's knuckleball averaged around 66 miles an hour in his last five seasons. While Wakefield could certainly throw it faster than 66 and occasionally did, it's probably safe to say he never threw his knuckleball 80 miles an hour. It just wasn't his style; in fact, Wakefield's "fastball" barely topped 70.

I checked in with Tom Candiotti, who reached the majors in 1983 and threw mostly knuckleballs from 1986 through the end of his career in 1999.

"I threw a medium one 66 miles an hour," Candiotti told me, "the hard one 75, and the soft one 55. But the 66 was the one I needed to throw good; that was the one I needed to throw for strikes."

I also spoke to Jim Bouton, the one-time power pitcher who famously resurrected his career as a knuckleball pitcher, first with the Seattle Pilots in 1969 and later with the Braves in ‘78.

"People said I threw the hardest knuckleball," Bouton says. "I wound up and got my whole body into it. In a game against the Pirates in 1970, I threw the knuckleball very hard, at least 70 miles an hour, and I struck out 11 Pirates in 10 innings. But that was just one night."

Eddie Bane's been around the game for nearly 40 years, debuting with the Twins in 1973 -- after skipping the minor leagues completely -- and later working for a number of teams in the front office. These days, he's scouting for the Tigers.

"Nobody I have seen throws the knuckler as hard as Dickey," Bane wrote in an e-mail message. "I was in spring training with Wilbur Wood during his big years with the White Sox. Wood's knuckleball was really slow. His warmup routine was to play catch with some unsuspecting sap and drill the guy with the ball.

"I was with some awfully good scouts in Pittsburgh the other day," Bane continues, "and almost to a man they said they had never seen anything like Dickey's knuckleball."

Hoyt Wilhelm, Charlie Hough, Phil Niekro ... all of those guys also threw the slow dancing knuckleball, generally in the 60s somewhere. Joe Niekro, who threw his secondary pitches more than those other guys, probably threw his knuckler a little harder, maybe in the low 70s. But not 80. Probably not close to 80. Perhaps the hardest knuckleball that anyone saw before Dickey's was thrown by Jared Fernandez, who toiled for a few teams in the last decade; Fernandez got his knuckler up to 76 with some regularity, or five miles an hour slower than Dickey's best.

R.A. Dickey is probably throwing a pitch that no professional batter had ever seen before he started throwing it.

**************

People wonder how he's doing this, and if he can keep doing it.

Over the last month, he's doing it by throwing knuckleballs faster than anyone's ever thrown them.

No. Scratch that. Dickey had thrown those knuckleballs before this recent run. What's changed is that he's now throwing more of those fast knuckleballs. According to ESPN.com's Mark Simon, in Dickey's second one-hitter last week, he "threw 35 knuckleballs at 80 mph or faster, the third straight start in which he's thrown at least 30 knuckleballs at that speed. Before those three starts, his previous high in a start was 17 such pitches."

And those fast knuckleballs might be among the most effective pitches ever thrown, period.

"I call it a power knuckleball," Candiotti says. "It doesn't dance all over the place. But it's got one hard movement."

Which is plenty. As Bouton notes, "If you're throwing it 80 miles an hour, it only needs to break two inches."

Remember, what sets the knuckleball apart is that when thrown correctly it's got no spin, and thus isn't subject to the same physical rules that govern every pitch from the four-seam fastball to the slow curve. Every conventional pitch -- that is, every pitch aside from the knuckleball -- describes a perfectly predictable path from the pitcher's hand until it's either hit or caught or somehow eludes the catcher.

But the well-thrown, non-spinning knuckleball is unpredictable, which of course is why it's so hard to hit, despite coming in 25-30 miles an hour slower than an average fastball. It's also hard to catch. It's also hard to throw for strikes. It's also hard to throw, period. Which is why there have been so few good knuckleball pitchers since it was invented.

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After the 2008 season -- during which he posted a 5.21 ERA for the Mariners, and after which he got released by the Mariners -- Dickey arranged for a tutoring session with Phil Niekro. From Dickey's book, just published this spring:

You have an angry knuckleball, Phil says. It comes in so much harder than the way guys have historically thrown the pitch. That's a tremendous asset if you can harness it.

It took four years, but Dickey's finally harnessed that angry knuckleball. Like nobody else ever has. He's quite probably the first of his kind.

Is he also the last, though? It's not like guys with R.A. Dickey's talents are all over the place, who just need a nudge in the right direction. Remember, Dickey was a first-round draft choice. Even at 37, Dickey can muscle up and throw a baseball 85 miles an hour, probably more if he wanted to work more on his fastball. He's not just some guy out there.

Tom Candiotti says, "R.A. must have one really good arm."

Jim Bouton says, "If you try to throw it too hard, it will just spin out of your hand. So Dickey must have a tremendous grip on the ball."

Eddie Bane says, "A really smart, athletic pitcher throwing a freak pitch is a great combination. Reminds me more of Bruce Sutter then other knuckleball pitchers."

He's also got the emotional attributes necessary to keep on working on a pitch, for year after year after year, despite receiving little positive reinforcement from either his employers or his performance. Most guys would have given up.

But there are a lot of stubborn professional athletes. Ryan Vogelsong. Jerome Williams. Jamie Moyer, for God's sake.

If you were 29 years old and threw 85-90 miles an hour but your career seemed to be stalled in the high minors, what would you do? Keep plugging along and hope for a miracle? Hey, miracles do happen. Vogelsong.

There might be another way, though. Lots of guys have tried to reinvent themselves as knuckleballers, and very few of them have succeeded. Maybe they were doing it wrong. Maybe instead of learning to throw it 65 miles an hour like Wilbur Wood and Phil Niekro and Tim Wakefield, they should have been learning to throw it like R.A. Dickey.

Except until this season, nobody knew that was even possible, let alone how well it could work. Until this season, nobody knew that a power knuckleball could be, at least for a few weeks, the single most unhittable pitch on earth.

Now, everybody knows. Robert Allen Dickey is one of a kind. But it's at least possible that in 10 years, he'll be viewed as the father of an entire generation of angry knuckleballers.

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